Subtly Worded

Short stories are an excellent tube read, and on my daily commute in January I’ve been enjoying this lovely little book from Pushkin Press, beautifully designed and bound in their signature style, from Russian author Teffi.

Subtly Worded contains a varied collection of Teffi’s short, humorous, often dark stories. She does gothic absurdity in The Dog, a tale of unrequited love featuring a young soldier who faithfully watches over the object of his desires in canine form, saving her from an abusive relationship. She tells tales of her childhood in St Petersburg, trips with nannies and early forays into Russian society. She lives through the turbulent pre-revolutionary years, capturing in the words of her stories the warring factions, the uncertainty of everything as loyalties change and friends turn against one another.

One of the book’s most arresting stories, which is really more of a novella, details her meetings with Rasputin. Like everyone, she is grimly fascinated by him and the hold he seems to have on the country – but she is resistant to the supposedly mystic charms he uses to enthral others, in particular women. In Teffi’s description of dinners with Rasputin, written over a decade after they happened, it is clear she is is bemused by the power he is able to wield over some, faintly disgusted by him as a person. With her wonderful powers of observation, she remains detached, impervious to his attempts to charm her. She escapes from her encounter unscathed, takes her extraordinary experience and provides a fascinating insight into the mindset and character of one of the twentieth century’s most infamous men.

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